People as pawns

Print edition : November 01, 2013

A "Long March" by college students in support of Samaikyandhra, or United Andhra, on August 30 in Visakhapatnam. Photo: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

TRS supporters block the road in front of Telangana Bhavan in Hyderabad on October 5 and burn effigies of TDP leader N. Chandrababu Naidu and YSR Congress leader Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy. Photo: Mohammed_Yousuf, The Hindu

The main road near the RTC complex in Visakhapatnam in pitch darkness on October 9 as a result of a strike by electricity employees who support Samaikhyandhra. Photo: K_R_DEEPAK

N. Chandrababu Naidu being examined by doctors on the third day of his indefinite fast at Andhra Bhawan in New Delhi on October 9. Photo: PTI

Policemen carrying Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy to hospital on the fifth day of his indefinite hunger strike, in Hyderabad on October 9. Photo: PTI

Telangana Rashtra Samithi president K. Chandrasekhara Rao at Mint compound in Hyderabad on October 5, with exuberant electricity board employees from the Telangana region cheering in the background.

The Congress is clearly eyeing a pre-poll alliance with the TRS in Telangana and a post-poll alliance with the YSR Congress in Seemandhra. In this cynical game, it is dividing not only Andhra Pradesh politically but also the eight crore Telugu-speaking people in their minds and hearts.

NEVER in the past three decades has a ruling party in Andhra Pradesh attracted so much public ire as the Congress after its July 30 announcement to carve out a separate Telangana State.

Such is the Congress’ political ambition that votes come first and the people next. This has driven the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre so much out of sync with the ground realities in Andhra Pradesh that it has reduced the raging political storm to a game of chess. If the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and the YSR Congress are the major pieces on this chequered board and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president N. Chandrababu Naidu is the adversary, the people are the pawns in its political game.

The people of Telangana were on tenterhooks for nearly four years after the then Union Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, announced in December 2009 the creation of a separate State. Within a fortnight, the Centre retracted the announcement, plunging Telangana into a seemingly endless turmoil. Suicide by hundreds of young people frustrated over the double-crossing by the Centre, a prolonged strike by government employees in the Telangana region, or continuous unrest on university campuses and disruption of academic schedules made no impact on Congress leaders.

The Centre also junked the report of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Committee after spending crores of rupees on it. Suddenly, perhaps waking up to the fact that the Lok Sabha elections were approaching, All India Congress Committee (AICC) president Sonia Gandhi convened a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) on July 30 and announced that the party was in favour of carving out Telangana as the 29th State in the Indian Union.

The hasty announcement came before the geographical boundaries of the proposed new State were fixed and also before the controversy over the status of Hyderabad, the State’s capital, which is situated in the Telangana region, was resolved. The shabby homework that preceded the announcement and the many loose ends in the decision were flabbergasting—even the number of districts in Telangana, whether 10 or more, was not decided. Nothing seemed to matter except grabbing the maximum number of seats and votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Ever since July 30, normal life in the nine districts of coastal Andhra and the four districts of Rayalaseema has been paralysed by agitations, while Central leaders have chosen to look the other way. The last instance of such an outburst of public sentiment against the Congress was witnessed in August 1984 when the people revolted against Nadendla Bhaskar Rao after he toppled the then Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao when he had completed barely 20 months in office, in a Congress-backed coup. The public upsurge forced Indira Gandhi to reinstate NTR within a month. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October, that is, about 45 days later, there was a nationwide groundswell of public sympathy for the Congress in the parliamentary elections that followed. NTR rolled back this wave and won a majority of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in Andhra Pradesh when other Opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), were wiped off the political map. He later dissolved the Assembly and rode back to power with a bigger mandate.

History will be repeated for the Congress in Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra (commonly referred to as Seemandhra), where it does not enjoy a shred of public support now—not because it has divided Andhra Pradesh but because of the manner in which it has done so. Congress leaders are scampering for cover—seeking safe havens in the YSR Congress or the TDP. Others are contemplating retirement from politics until the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, by which time they expect the public anger to die down.

The high command is treating the situation in Seemandhra as a case of breakdown of law and order. But it is something more than just that; it reflects a total distrust of the Congress and perhaps also an anti-Sonia Gandhi wave, if the destruction of Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s statues is anything to go by.

Why has the situation come to such a pass? Whom is the Congress party relying upon for “actionable intelligence”, to borrow a police expression? Did the Congress anticipate violence on this scale in Vizianagaram, a quiet town known for its patronage of art and culture and as a centre of higher learning? The world has turned upside down for the people of this historic town who have never experienced curfew, police firing, tear-gassing and lathi charge.

Their target is Botcha Satyanarayana, Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee president, who is also Transport Minister in N. Kiran Reddy’s Cabinet, never mind Rahul Gandhi’s “one man, one-post” rule. Their ire is a result of his self-admitted U-turns—advocating two States for the Telugu people and, in the next moment, vowing to fight for a united Andhra Pradesh. Allegations by his own partymen that he cut an underhand deal with the high command to encourage groups opposed to Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy did not lift his image.

The timing of the Cabinet note on Telangana on October 3 worsened matters for him and the Congress. Botcha was in New Delhi the day before the Cabinet’s announcement. Some of the flak could have been deflected if only Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had not dismissed as “just speculation” reports that the Telangana note would come up before the Cabinet on October 3. Five hours later, the note was placed before the Cabinet and approved. However, the public anger was more about the Centre not waiting until the A.K. Antony Committee, set up to listen to the concerns of Seemandhra people, completed its work. This has given the impression that the Centre is in an unseemly haste to divide the State. This view is strengthened by the anxiety of the Group of Ministers (GoM) to begin the job of partitioning the largest southern State even before Antony, the Defence Minister, is out of hospital. The committee of seven wise men, which does not include any Minister from Andhra Pradesh, will preside over the destiny of the State and present its report by the third week of November. It will determine the boundaries of Telangana and look into the sharing of resources and issues relating to law and order in the “residuary State” of Andhra Pradesh.

The Centre’s ways are inscrutable. It did not act for the entire duration of two and a half months when the agitation was peaceful and when the A.P. NGOs Association prevented political parties from infiltrating the movement. Now that the movement is taking a violent turn, AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh, instead of identifying solutions, issues daily tough, no-nonsense statements that the bifurcation decision is irrevocable and that it is best for everyone to fall in line.

The Centre’s decision has brought Seemandhra to the brink and destroyed the region’s economy (thousands of industries are shut down for want of power while buses of the State-owned A. P. State Road Transport Corporation have been off the roads for nearly two months). Yet, Congress leaders are persistent with their political games. Union Minister Kavuri Sambasiva Rao, a staunch integrationist once, is forced to toe the party line; the Chief Minister is kept busy fending off dissidents while Digvijay Singh keeps hurling barbs at Kiran Reddy, daring him to resign.

Such is the depth and intensity of the agitation that the Congress is shut out of the electoral race in Seemandhra, which accounts for 25 Lok Sabha and 175 Assembly seats. There is also no political punditry required to say that the Congress is eyeing a pre-poll alliance with the TRS in Telangana and a post-poll alliance with the YSR Congress in Seemandhra. In this cynical political game, the ruling party is dividing not just Andhra Pradesh politically but the eight crore Telugu-speaking people in their minds and hearts.

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